Q&A with New FareStart CEO Patrick D’Amelio; “It’s about being human with humans.”
We sat down with FareStart’s new leader after five weeks on the job, to learn a little more about him, what wisdom he’s drawn from his life and work experiences, and what excites him about FareStart right now.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in New York but grew up in Seattle, the youngest of 10 children. I feel deeply connected to the experience of growing up in a large family and what that taught me. I learned a lot about how to navigate, how to compromise, and how to create solutions within a complex group. I'm still really blessed to have close relationships with all my siblings.
My mom and dad were truly self-made. They took a huge leap of faith by moving to Seattle with 10 young children in tow to start a new life after facing the setback of Dad’s camera store closing. My dad became an executive producer at KING 5 TV and then opened his own educational media company. My mom had her hands full at home but went back to work full-time for King County at the age of 62.
My parents worked hard to create change and opportunity for their family. Our economic opportunities, our social opportunities and our educational opportunities were strengthened and broadened over time. Inspired by them, I’ve worked to hold the values and behaviors they taught me in my personal and work life. I’ve spent my career in nonprofit enterprises, working to advance equal access and opportunities. I believe education is one of the most effective ways to do that. FareStart’s mission of workforce development – being able to offer somebody a chance to focus on self-empowerment and learn vital work and life skills – resonates and is incredibly motivating for me.
What other lessons did you learn from your parents and childhood?
The most important things I've learned in life were from my parents, my siblings, and the unique context of growing up in my family. I learned about the importance and rewards of risk-taking – what it is to take a risk and to have confidence in yourself. I also developed a deep appreciation for the diversity of humankind. My parents were wildly interested in the world and in people. They were both intellectually curious and deeply committed to any experience they could have, so they went through life always ready to authentically engage with anyone on anything.
From my broader family, I learned the skills that I needed to know about conflict management, operating in a complex system, developing solutions and driving compromise. As the youngest of 10, I also learned how to take it on the chin, hold my own in a group and ask for what I need.
What role has food played in your life?
My culinary interests started early. With such a large family to care for, my mom was not going to cook for twelve people on her own. She welcomed kids in the kitchen. From a very young age, I loved being in the kitchen and helping. I have a treasured cookbook from her in which she inscribed, “You were a good cook even when you needed a milk box to get some extra height!” I worked my way through high school and college, cooking in various settings.
I appreciate the organizing principles around food. The skill development you learn in a kitchen is critical, as are the life skills you pick up around teamwork, communication, and self-reliance. On a more fundamental level, food is the first and most important human need – being well-nourished is critical for humans to flourish. Too many of our clients and the communities we serve struggle with food insecurity. Addressing this challenge is a privilege.
What are some of your interests or activities outside of work?
My family is my great joy. I spend as much time as I can with my husband and my two kids. I have one on her way to college in the fall, and one is a rising senior at Ballard High School. I also spend a lot of time with my extended family; I have 52 nieces and nephews, so there’s lots of family and we gather often.
I love the outdoors – hiking, climbing, camping, anything to do with being out in nature, on the water, in the mountains. My other passion is summer camp. I grew up going to camp, and some of my oldest friends are still from that community. I'm the board chair for Friends of Camp Gallagher, which is a youth sailing camp in South Puget Sound, and I serve on the national board of The American Camp Association.
What have you learned from your camp experiences, and are there are parallels with what we’re doing at FareStart?
Outside of my family, camp was the single biggest influence on my development. Camps are often a place where somebody can show up and authentically, fully be themselves and feel accepted in a really beautiful way. Kids have a chance to be free and try out different strengths and skills they may not have thought they had.
There is a similar feeling of community and affirmation at FareStart. I felt it on day one, and our students also feel and appreciate it. What I've heard from students is that they feel embraced by community -- getting to be fully who they are, and to lay bare their anxieties, their fears, their self-doubt and to know that someone has their back. Many of our students have never experienced anything like this before, and some of them don't even believe it's real at first.
What are you passionate about?
I have a deep, abiding belief that all human beings inherently have dignity and should have opportunities to define and drive what it is that makes them happy and fulfills their purpose. But too often, what we see is that people are denied opportunity or access to circumstances that are beyond their control and largely because they've been marginalized by poverty, racism or systemic barriers.
I get passionate and animated by what an organization like FareStart can do to remove some of those barriers – to create pathways toward opportunity and to unlock what’s possible when people have a sense of dignity, a sense of opportunity and a sense of agency to create and sustain a happy life. That gets me excited and has animated my nonprofit career.
What drew you to FareStart?
FareStart felt like a perfect fit in many personal and professional ways. My commitment to social justice, my interest in food, and the fundamental belief that all human beings deserve an opportunity to have a meaningful and happy life come together in this role at this organization. It feels like the right set of opportunities and, frankly, the right set of complex challenges. FareStart has done an incredible job in its first 30 years. The core of what we do is important and is needed. We’ve experienced challenges like all organizations, going into and now coming out of the pandemic. Creating a path forward that’s sustainable and meets the needs of our students will be complex and will require existing and new partnerships. It’s an exciting time to be here.
How would you describe the challenges and opportunities that FareStart now faces?
It's no secret that we've had some challenges recently and that we're operating on a very tight financial margin. As we move through and develop pathways forward out of COVID, I have absolutely zero doubt about the long-term financial viability and sustainability of the FareStart model. Still, it's going to take a while for us to get back to a place where we can feel comfortable with our financial position.
There’s an element of calculated risk as we move forward. While we may be past the official end of the pandemic, the ripple effect is still very much at play. As we reactivate and start new social enterprises, we may still be impacted by some of the challenges faced during the pandemic. From these challenges comes opportunity. We will have to take some risks – based on past experience, data, research, and industry guidance – and when we hit challenges, we will have to calibrate the risks and rewards and move forward working together.
FareStart is in a period of transition and reimagination. What are your thoughts on that?
The greatest strength of FareStart is that the mission to train, educate and support students remains unchanged. The pandemic upended the way we do all of that, so we'll need to make changes to put things back in place. We need to move quickly towards reactivating our social enterprises. We're excited to have opened the FareStart Café in South Lake Union and to have begun the process of opening the restaurant space at 7th and Virginia. We want people to be able to come back to FareStart and share a meal together, to be in community, to be exposed to the mission, to interact and engage with students, and to hear and learn more about our organization. But it's premature to say exactly what that will look like. Some of the favorite experiences people have treasured, like Guest Chef Night and student community dinners, will likely return. Will they come back at the same cadence or in the same form? Not necessarily. But will they come back? Absolutely.
We will try new and creative things. Our view of the culinary plus space is expanding and may include more than a restaurant or a cafe. It might include food processing and transportation, packaging, warehouse work or making and serving food in non-restaurant settings like corporate cafeterias.
At its core, FareStart will always include the same recipe of on-the-job training, intensive support and wraparound social services, leading to opportunities for students to gain employment and explore pathways to enjoy economic mobility. We will be listening to our partners, listening to community members, listening to students and working as staff to understand what the best opportunities are. It's going to be exciting to reactivate our social enterprises and to reconnect with the community in a post covid footing focused on the future.
How do you see FareStart working with the larger community in new ways in this new era, and why is that important?
Our work is strengthened when it is responsive to the community. We aren’t successful if we work in isolation. As we reopen businesses, expand training, and seek employment for grads, we need to understand better how our partners are contributing to the space locally and nationally and ask ourselves how we can best work alongside them, the same way we did when growing our food security work during the pandemic. How do we work with the funders that have an interest in supporting this work? How do we work with government and social service agencies? How do we partner with employers for great outcomes for our grads? There's room for everybody to work well together. FareStart is approaching this with a good deal of humility and work to understand what our place is in these spaces, how we share these spaces and how we focus on our unique value proposition.
What’s it like to work with FareStart students?
The most inspiring moments I've had since starting here have been the opportunities to engage with students. The graduations are everything – listening to students from completely different life experiences talk about the transformative power of the training they received, the community that was wrapped around them and the hopefulness about the opportunities they have moving forward. While I've only been here briefly, these interactions have been a touchstone to why I came here and are at the center of what motivates all of us on the team to do the work.
How can people get involved?
The pandemic forced us to close down many of our public-facing programs and people have been waiting to reengage. It's been phenomenal what FareStart has been able to do in terms of feeding the community during the pandemic while training students in a mostly virtual environment; however, that hasn't been as visible to many people who are willing and ready to support us. As we ramp back up, come back and work with us. And as we create opportunities, there will be many ways for people to connect and contribute.
As we restart social enterprises, FareStart will need people who are comfortable with startup investment to take a leap of faith and help us restart those efforts. We need volunteers to help us realize this vision. We need partnerships with the community, and collaboration with our social enterprise peers. We are excited about the many ways people can contribute to the mission.
Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
One of the things that I'm struck by is how universal and fundamental the need is for human acceptance. We can make assumptions about who might benefit from or need FareStart's services or where they might have come from. The simple answer is our students come from everywhere. They come from my family, from your family, from every walk of life. It's important for us to stay grounded in understanding that, and accepting people for who they are, how they show up, what they need. That kind of universal call to acceptance and love is what creates this opportunity to treat everybody equitably. At its core, it's about being human with humans.